Our heavily loaded lorry, with us sitting on it's cargo along with a number of locals, all indians, chugged up through the indian quarter of La Paz onto the Altiplano, already at 4000 meters. We then headed on the dirt road North across the plateau, with views of mountains in the distance. There were few houses, and the agriculture consisted of poor grazing and stony potato fields, all cultivated by hand.
Every now and then we would pass indians, either in groups or alone. They watched us go past impassively, the children were more demonstrative but the adults, either men in their familiar woolen hats or the women in wide skirts and black bowler hats, just watched us inscrutably. If we waved, they returned the greeting politely, sometimes with a timid smile, but the overall atmosphere was one of distance, they seemed as far from our world as we were from the white peaks on the horizon.
The sun shone brightly in a clear blue sky, neither too hot nor too cold, perfect weather for those, like me, who dislike the heat of sea level holiday resorts. The road was quite good but sometimes, on a bump, I could feel a sharp edge of a wooden case I was sitting on. Seeking to make myself more comfortable, I lifted up the woolen blanket covering it and read the contents stenciled on the wood : "Nitro-glycerin"! I knew we were heading to a mine, and that theoretically it would be packed for transport but it certainly added a little spice to the situation; if Lima and La Paz were a different world to London, this was yet a further level of difference. As we were soon to discover, here we were amongst the Aymaras, a people first conquered by the Incas, then by the Spanish, but whose language and culture have survived.
That evening we arrived at Sorrato, and slept in a house belonging to Arthuros, the driver. It was a large, fairly dilapidated Spanish colonial style building, on two floors, built around a square courtyard. On the first floor a gallery with wooden balustrades gave access to the rooms, John Wayne or Clint Eastwood would have been quite at home. In a bar that evening, a jovial, round faced local demonstrated what was certainly his party trick, munching a whole hot, red pepper with ner a sign of suffering. Needless to say our efforts to emulate this feat lead to gasps and groveling for a glass of water, to the great, and predictable, mirth of all : undoubtedly we weren't the first gringos to come a cropper at his hands.
We were now off the Altiplano in the damp, misty realms of the Amazon basin, and next morning saw us slithering and sliding up the rutted muddy tracks toward Mina Candelaria. The mist was quite thick but the drop to one side and the mountainside on the other gave a feeling of insecurity, amplified by the lurching and swaying of the over loaded lorry, not to mention thoughts of the case of nitro I was sitting on. It became clear that something else was wrong as on the steep bits the front wheels lifted more and more often off the road. The driver eventually stopped and we all got down for a look. What had happened was that the whole load platform had slipped a little backwards, and as the vehicle already had a short wheelbase and a long rear overhang, a little like traditional Swiss post buses, for the same reason, that is to facilitate the passage of the numerous steep hairpin bends and to put more weight onto the rear driving wheels. The result was that the front was now far to light and we were in real danger of coming off the road.
The only solution was to unload some of our cases to enable them to get to the mine where the truck could be repaired and then come back later. This was done and three of us settled down for our first bivouac of the trip, in the rain and under a plastic sheet draped over the boxes. The clag remained thick, but it wasn't cold and the full moon soon came out and, resplendent in its hallo, shone through the mist. We passed an eerie but not unpleasant night, until the lorry came back and we continued up across desolate rocky country in a cold, fine dawn. By now we were above the tree line and tussocky grass had replaced the luxuriant vegetation of the previous day, rocky outcrops, and some quite impressive slabs started to wet our appetites for the mountains to come.
At the mine the others had been made very welcome and were sorting out the porterage to base camp. For some reason we had assumed that llamas carried as much as donkeys and all our food and gear was packed in boxes weighing over 40 pounds each, a donkey would have taken two of these on each side. Llamas, however, as any experienced South American explorer, indian or zoologist would know, are lightly built creatures, whose visible size is mostly made up of a thick wooly coat. They only carry a few kilos each, so everything had to be unpacked and put into hand woven saddle bags supplied by the owners. Our go-between was Angelino, an Aymara from the village near the mine, the only one who spoke Spanish. He was an efficient and honest character and when, two days later, everything had been unloaded in a huge pile of tins at Cheracota, subsequent checking showed that not one was missing. Considering that none of us were present at the arrival, we were puffing and panting well behind, this was proof of level of integrity which we found quite impressive, especially given the flagrant difference in wealth between us and the villagers concerned.
The mine itself produced wolfram, an ore from which tungsten is extracted. All the mining was done by hand, with a little help from dynamite, hence my traveling companion in the lorry. We had a chance to visit the workings. The tools would have seemed rudimentary to a Cornish miner of yore, pickaxes, iron bars, hammers and shovels. The rock was a fairly hard metamorphic one, and the tunnels just high enough to walk in. Near the entance was a little altar, with a human effigy made of potatoes standing in a heap of coca leaves. We were given to understand this was a representation of the Virgin Mary or some other saint, communication was difficult, but clearly, as in much of America, the indian populations have taken on the Catholic religion in a fairly wide interpretation.
The chewing of coca was widespread, many of the miners had developed a permanent pouch in one cheek from continually chewing a ball of these leaves. They could not have stood the climate, altitude and the work without them, especially as their diet was mostly potatoes with just a little tinned fish, egg or, even more rarely, meat, from time to time. To give an idea of what they had to live with, the village of Cooco is 3000 feet below the mine in the valley bottom. Every day, before even getting down to the job of mining, they had this little warm-up on foot, we didn't envy them.
For us, the direction was down, and we were soon trying to keep up with our herd of llamas as they trotted down towards the village, accompanied by a little girl, already with a small package on her back, and some men who were also carrying loads for us. In the picturesque village, with its little earth and branch bridge over the stream, final adjustments were made to the packs and we then set off South towards the mountains, already towering above us. In front was the long ridge leading up to Pico del Norte and Illampu to inspire us : before long the later would arouse very different sentiments.
The drop down from the mine now had to be regained on the other side of the valley, and it was a sorry crew of mountaineers who bivouacked that night in two separate parties due to a "navigational" error. Rich and I slept by a little lake high up on the hillside, and at 4.00 pm. the next day we arrived at Cheracota, a charming spot between a stream and a mirror like lake of extremely cold water, which was to be our safe haven for the coming weeks.